Earl Spencer takes diving lessons to join hunt for lost White Ship

Simon de Bruxelles
·4-min read
Earl Spencer  - Andrew Crowley
Earl Spencer - Andrew Crowley

It was a 12th Century Titanic, a disaster that killed the cream of the English aristocracy including the heir to the throne and led to nearly 20 years of violent conflict.

In June marine archaeologists searching for the wreck of the White Ship will be joined by Earl Spencer, author of a best selling book about the sinking.

The Earl has been having diving lessons in order to join the expedition. They will be searching for any trace of the White Ship which was reputed to be the fastest vessel afloat when it sank in November 1120 on its way from Barfleur in Normandy to Southampton.

Although the boat which was built along the lines of a Viking longship went down less than half a mile from shore only one of the 300 people on board survived.

Any treasure its passengers of assembled royals and aristos were bringing from Normandy was salvaged shortly after the sinking but many other items, including metal fittings and personal possessions, are believed to still lie on the seabed near the rock that sank her.

'Wreck Of The White Ship', 1120, (c1850)
'Wreck Of The White Ship', 1120, (c1850)

The Earl, writing as Charles Spencer, is a best-selling author of historical non-fiction and the younger brother of the late Princess Diana. He said: “I have dived before but it was rather a long time ago.”

The story of the White Ship has fascinated him since he was a schoolboy but is surprisingly little known considering its disastrous consequences for medieval England. After Henry I’s death the absence of a male heir led to a period known as The Anarchy.

A replica of the 12th century White Ship - so called because she was lime-washed at a time when most vessels were waterproofed with bitumen - is to be built alongside a full size replica of the 7th century Sutton Hoo longship, subject of the chart-topping Netflix movie The Dig. When it is finished the two vessels will give historians a far clearer picture of how such ships ruled the waves for nearly 500 years.

Earl Spencer, 56, said: “The White Ship was clinker built with over-lapping planks pinned together with metal rivets and that is what we are really looking for and how we will know we have found it.”

The Sutton Hoo boat and the White Ship mark the beginning and the end of the era of the longship. The resemblance to longships sailed by the Vikings when they raided the north of England or said across the Atlantic was no coincidence. Henry’s father William the Conqueror, who led the invasion in 1066, was descended from Norsemen who had settled in northern France, hence the name Norman.

Normandy - Digital Vision 
Normandy - Digital Vision

Henry I was returning to England from Normandy having defeated the French king Louis the Fat and forced him to concede that his son William Adelin was heir to the Dukedom of Normandy.

Many of the passengers and crew on board the open longship were drunk and in uproarious mood after celebrating victory over the French. Henry had set off in his own boat a little earlier and the crew of the White Ship were urged to catch up and beat him to Southampton.

After the collision Prince William Adelin, Henry’s only legitimate son and heir who had supplied the booze, was taken off the sinking White Ship by his bodyguard. But hearing the cries of his half sister Matilda the prince insisted they turn around whereupon the small boat was swamped by drowning passengers.

In the dark and travelling at high speed propelled by a sail and 50 oarsmen the White Ship hit a notorious rock known as Quillebœuf which is submerged at high tide. The sole survivor Berold, a butcher from Rouen, managed to cling to the rock until help arrived.

King Henry I learns of the death of his son and heir, William the Aetheling, who was killed when the 'White Ship' was wrecked in 1120. - Hulton Archive
King Henry I learns of the death of his son and heir, William the Aetheling, who was killed when the 'White Ship' was wrecked in 1120. - Hulton Archive

Earl Spencer added: “William had three extraordinarily large casks of wine brought on board and in return for the flattery of the crew he encouraged them to join in the drinking. It was a very bad move.

“It was a medieval Titanic although a far more powerful group of people drowned than the poor people who died on the Titanic. The Titanic would have had to have the equivalent of half the Cabinet on board to compete in terms of knock on tragedy for the country. It was the beginning of the end of Norman rule.”

The reconstruction of the White Ship and the expedition are being supported by the Oxford based Institute for Digital Archaeology. Roger Michel, the IDA’s executive director, said: “The Earl is the world’s leading expert on the White Ship. Given the historical importance of the event it is startling how little research had been done into it. It would be impossible to do it without him.

”In addition to the reconstruction we will create a very high quality 3D computer animation that will recreate Barfleur harbour and the sinking of the White Ship. I hope Charles will also help with some of the public engagement around it.”